Bad Luck, Good News

July 1, 2019

Everyone has good days and bad days. If you’re having a bad day, try not to make it worse.

Back in Greer, South Carolina to see our kids and grandkids, I went for an early-morning run on nearby streets. I followed a six-mile out-and-back course that includes a hilly mile-long straightaway, Dillard Road. With a half-mile left, the 8:00 AM heat and humidity and my radiation-induced lung damage had me gasping. I slogged up the last interminable hill to the intersection of Dillard with Gibbs Shoals Road, a busy local route.

As I made the turn onto Gibbs Shoals, a red Chevy compact, moving away from me well above the speed limit, collided with the rear end of a silver SUV with a deafening BOOM! Pieces of fender and headlights flew into the air, for a few seconds they locked bumpers. The SUV then broke free and kept going. The Chevy swerved off the road and crashed into a decorative tree of thick branches with a second BOOM! The branches exploded with the impact, most falling across the road. The remainder pushed the car against a brick façade that bordered a side street leading into exquisitely named Chartwell Estates, which for me conveyed the message: “we don’t have messy accidents here, take your collisions somewhere else.”

img_20190629_100026932_hdr1016158150488336416.jpgFor an instant I stared at the Chevy, wedged between the branches. A car approaching in the opposite direction on Gibbs Shoals pulled onto the shoulder near me. A young woman opened her window and asked, “Did you see that?”

I said yeah and asked her to call 911.

“Sure,” she answered.

I ran across the road toward the Chevy. The driver’s side was completely entangled in the branches. I was able to squeeze among them on the passenger’s side. I couldn’t see the driver. I tried the door—locked. Smoke was curling from under the crumpled hood. I then saw a pair of legs on the driver’s seat, the driver was stretched onto the passenger’s seat, his head against the door.

I pounded on the window, yelling “Unlock the door, get out—this side!”

I pounded a few more times. The driver raised his head but ignored me and slid back into the driver’s seat. He put the car in reverse and backed up maybe five feet, enabling him to open the driver’s side door.

He got out. A tall, skinny kid, maybe 20, with a bleeding cut on his head. Without a word, he took off, walking first, then jogging down the side street into Chartwell Estates. The girl who had called 911 and I watched, amazed. He left the scene. Simply bolted.

Meanwhile, the SUV had pulled over about 200 feet ahead. A middle-aged woman came toward us. Arriving at the scene, she yelled, “He completely destroyed my car!”

She went on, “I was on my way to pick up my grandchildren to take them to Bible school. Someone has to pick up those kids—I’ll call my husband.”

The girl and I asked, are you OK?

“I have a bump on my head,” she said, fumbling with her cell phone.

Traffic backed up. The fallen branches extended halfway across one lane of Gibbs Shoals, forcing vehicles to maneuver slowly onto the opposite shoulder.

We heard sirens and then saw the flashing lights of a fire engine and an ambulance. The EMTs listened to our accounts of the collision. One of them persuaded the SUV driver to have her vital signs checked. I borrowed her cell phone to call Sandy. She didn’t answer, I left a message.

A Greer police officer arrived. I told him what I saw, he took my name and number. He jotted down the Chevy’s plate number. I guessed it would not be long before the cops found the driver.

Standing there, we wondered why the driver took off. Impaired in some way? Car stolen? He must have known he was at fault—wanted to postpone the consequences? Obviously, leaving the scene does him no good.

I wondered what went through his head. Very soon, the police will be asking him. And the Chartwell Estates people will not be pleased with what happened to their decorative tree.

Later that day I drove by the site. The car was gone, the tree branches and the debris had been cleared. The only remaining sign of the accident: the tree trunk sawed down to a short stump.

All that’s left

The Chartwell Estates melodrama prompted me consider, as many things do, how quickly life becomes complicated, then more complicated. When he got in his car that morning that young man had no idea how difficult his life was about to become. If there’s an upside, at least he didn’t seriously injure the other driver, or worse.

It also distracted me for a moment from an inkling of good news—a “B” grade, more or less, from the oncologist two days earlier. He had not seen the PET scan image of my chest but, based on the radiologist’s written report, let me slink away without sentencing me to another regimen of chemo. He said he’d call the surgeon who operated on me six months ago to get his thoughts, and the urologist I had seen about the kidney, the start of this unpleasant story. I offered that the kidney tumor has not bothered me in nearly a year. He countered, explaining it could start spreading any time.

He said he’d call me. I took that as a maybe on the carcinoma and a definite on the kidney. Overall, good news—a B is a B. I thought of those family members, kids, cousins, the rest, and all the friends who keep me in their prayers. They’ve helped me fight this thing, given me the incentive to think more than one day ahead, to get things in order with others, to repay them somehow, although that’s impossible. The doc gave me the chance to recognize the difference between a bad day and a good one.

Right now my med schedule is clear. I didn’t do anything to deserve good news. It prompts me now to treasure each day, to think about how easily things can go south the way they did for the Gibbs Shoals driver. And, maybe overthinking the whole thing, to be careful near Chartwell Estates.

Florida …

June 24, 2019

I awoke in my motel room in Hollywood, Fla., at 6:00 AM and walked the one block to the beach. The humidity was stifling even then. Dozens of people were there, strolling, jogging, watching the sunrise. I took a few pictures then headed back to the air conditioning.

Some Americans love Florida, others dislike it intensely. The Sunshine State is a place of opportunity and prosperity, of refuge and peace, of escape, joy, violence and tragedy. So—how is it different from any other place?  An intriguing question or a pointless one.

I flew to Fort Lauderdale for a couple of days last week for a family memorial service, and started perspiring as soon as I stepped outside the airport terminal. Jungle heat. No one likes it. My cousin, who’s been here for many years, says she rides her bike early in the morning in the summer, but hardly ever steps outside later. She, like so many others here, came from the North, where they hated the winters. They’ll never go back.

Hollywood, Fla.

A friend in Connecticut points out that in winter in northern states you run from a heated house to a heated car, while in summer in Florida you run from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car. So if it’s just about weather, you may as well dislike cold places and hot ones more or less equally.

Everyone has an opinion about Florida, in a way they don’t have opinions about Arkansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maine, Indiana, or others. Those opinions are judgments on observations of actual conditions: the weather is fabulous or awful, the landscape is gardenlike or boring, state tax policy is great for business and retirees, or indifferent to education and the underprivileged.

I wonder instead about the idea of Florida that’s in the heads of visitors, immigrants from other places, as well as the natives. That idea may have to do with why so many people who live elsewhere consider packing up and moving here, and so many do it. “A thousand people a day,” a young banker told me.

From my rental car on a local street just south of Fort Lauderdale, I watched the blocklike rows of high-rise apartments and condos pass. The landscape reminded me of photos of Russia’s Siberian cities: mind-numbing sameness, as if designed by zombie architects. But then beyond are the glimmering white beaches, the clear, aquamarine ocean! Beautiful, wide, long, suggestive of Hawaii or Tahiti. Real sand, real ocean, crystal clear and azure. But it’s Florida.

img_20190621_195347395_hdr568553326345179486.jpgI was at loose ends one evening, my cousins had plans. I walked the Hollywood boardwalk, which actually is made of bricks. I didn’t want to sit in a restaurant, so I bought a pizza and sat on a bench with my dinner, watching families, twentysomethings, and old folks saunter past, all enjoying the warm soothing air, the waving palms, the tropical setting, the laughing children. Different, but pleasant. For me, an adventure.

The next day we all had brunch then—what else? The Casino, in slightly more upscale Hallendale, which sits in a shopping mall next to the Gulfstream racetrack. My cousins played slots in the refrigerated climate of the casino. I watched the ponies, amazed that they sprinted around that mile-and-something track without collapsing. I staggered from the shade of one canopy to the next then escaped to the arctic temperatures inside.

Bugatti Chiron parked at Hallendale Beach mall (about $3 million)

The idea of Florida exists in the real world and in myth, the distinction enshrouded in dreams. It already hints at the myth of California a generation or more ago: dreamlike, distant, beckoning, intimating escape and salvation. Today the Golden State is afflicted by an angry divide between wealth and poverty, rampant homelessness, prohibitive costs of everything. The dream there has become seedy and threadbare.

If ideas may someday become bitter and turn to myth, Florida still is magical for those who come. The gray heads still arrive from New England and the Midwest, the churches and supermarkets are well-populated with them. Young people come from everywhere, seeking affluence, not Palm Beach fakery but the profits of real work in finance, real estate, engineering, technology. The wealth is there to be earned. Years ago, it was all about golf and oranges.

The new Floridians come for the promise of jobs and opportunity.  Yet for many it is the differentness of Florida that matters more, and prosperity is only incidental to a mysterious mix of confidence in finding life’s purpose and a haunting fear of losing it in this place that is both exotic and banal. The mystery beckons also to the immigrants who land on Florida’s shores, desperate to seize freedom, which is real, not a myth.

They come to a place that resembles Brazil more than Brooklyn, where pythons and alligators patrol the swamps and builders keep throwing up those condo towers, the interstates are gridlocked, the suffocating summer heat shimmers even at dawn. It has only been a decade since the real estate crash devastated the state.  But today it still is Florida, offering its promise of a new life. For the Floridians, whenever they arrived, the right word is hope, which, guided by forbearance and faith, shatters any myth.

Walker Guy

June 17, 2019

I sat in the waiting room of the radiology practice in Reston on Monday playing with my phone when something crashed. The crowd (the room was packed) let out a collective “Ooh!” I looked up. A man with a walker, one of those four-legged contraptions used by elderly people to help them keep their balance, had stumbled, pushing the walker over. A couple of men sitting nearby jumped up to help him off the floor. He thanked them then staggered over and took a seat. A staff person came out and talked to him. He said he was OK.

He was a fairly tall guy, maybe early sixties, and the walker looked too short for him. But I know those things are adjustable for height, maybe he borrowed it and didn’t bother.  The staff person asked about his medical records, he said his scans were done at Sentara in Lake Ridge—my hospital. So I guessed he was there in Reston for a PET scan, same as me. You can’t get that at Sentara. “I’ve had a bunch of them,” he said aloud to no one in particular. So he has cancer, like nearly everyone else in the room.

Just then a technician came in and handed me a CD containing my scan, and Sandy and I left. I thought: I may see that guy again at Sentara. We could meet for CT scans, which you can get there. Then have coffee.

img_20190616_1235196007478415563251623098.jpgWhat struck me, as we slogged through the rain out to the car, was the guy’s mysterious spirit. After picking himself up he smiled at the roomful of patients. Safely in his seat, he cracked a joke or two. It lightened my mood, even though along with the rest of the crowd I didn’t see the humor in taking a dive on a linoleum floor.

“I’ve had a bunch of them,” doesn’t sound like fun, either. I guessed his upbeat mood and his jokes came from someplace else. Maybe he knows something about this, I thought—this, meaning being sick. That’s what I went with. It could be he decided that bad news from doctors doesn’t have to kill your soul.

The fellow surely had got some bad news. If my hunch is right, he saw through it. He saw something else, which could be the flip side of a cancer diagnosis: the chance to say so what, I’ve got other things, good things, going on in my life. His hair was long and a little wild, he wore a scraggly beard, a teeshirt, and shorts. It didn’t look like his good thing was a recent winning lottery ticket or any connection to what might pass for affluence. Whatever he was thinking didn’t cost him anything.

So then, what gave him his sense of himself, his fearlessness, was in his heart, which after all is where we find the truth about our lives. He, like others in the waiting room, had had a tough diagnosis at some recent point—maybe not so recent. It would change his life, sentencing him to countless hours in waiting rooms, reciting his birthdate and filling out forms, blood draws, getting weighed, interrogations by insurance people, treatment tutorials followed by hours-long treatments, incomprehensible columns of charges, grinding payment plans, sleepless nights, relentless exhaustion, loss of appetite, racking pain.

So what’s left of life, he asks himself. Family, friends— who stay strong and give strength—if not, then strangers willing to buck you up, pass a good word, like the folks in the waiting room Monday. The docs—you encounter a dozen at least, the surgeons, the “rad-oncs” (radiology), the “med-oncs” (chemotherapy), who quarterback treatment regimens, the platoon of skilled helpers, nurses, aides, and even insurance reps—who understand, or try to understand what’s going on in your life. After all, people don’t get into cancer care without appreciating that it’s a tough line of work.

But the stranger with the wrong-sized walker in the waiting room wasn’t only leaning on others. He had figured something out about himself. That was that his strength, such as it was, or is, came from understanding that after enlisting all those highly trained folks, he needed something beyond himself and the helpers, something that steeled him to joke about his own weakness, to recognize that he had been chosen for a hard road that would challenge his spirit while it attacked his body. And I recognized that he knew that a mysterious Power was available to him, a God that stood with him and even loved him as he willingly took that road.

Looking at him, I couldn’t tell if he were a churchgoer, at any church. We, all of us, saw an unmistakable strength, a little irreverent, maybe, and sensed that his strength came from some rock-hard faith in that Power that signaled to him that his life was good. He smiled again, sprawled back in his chair, moved the walker away with his leg, and looked around, signaling to us that he knew that life, whatever hard detours it may take, should and must be lived without fear.

Staunton and Stepping Up

June 10, 2019

We drove to Staunton, Va., on Monday, for no reason but to reinforce our idea that we’re always on the lookout for new places to visit. We went for a jog early. It was a gorgeous morning, warm and clear, so I said let’s get out of town for a few hours. My original idea was Charlottesville, but we’ve been there, never to Staunton.

Why Staunton? Hard to say, except that I had heard it’s an interesting place, and—not clear why—boasts an American Shakespeare Center, which offers local performances and sends touring troupes around the country.

We took U.S. 29 from Manassas down to Charlottesville, a pretty ride we’ve taken dozens of times en route to Tennessee. The countryside is all farms and mountains, easy on the nerves until you hit the commercial grind of Charlottesville. Staunton then is a 35-mile hike west on I-64.

The city website shows a video entitled “Big Time Culture, Small Town Cool.” What’s that? We didn’t know before our visit and still didn’t know afterward. We parked downtown and stopped at the Visitor’s Center and picked up a fistful of brochures. The enthusiastic lady behind the counter gave us a full-dress briefing, adding that most of the downtown shops are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Clocktower building, Staunton

We got a nice lunch at the Clocktower Restaurant, in a building topped by a clock tower. We missed the downtown trolley ride, but did get into Sunspots, where two expert glassblowers were creating beautiful, but expensive, decorative glass items. Rows of chairs for spectators were empty this Monday afternoon, we stood for a while watching them heat the glass and form it. Why glassblowing in Staunton? Pressed by the three-hour trip ahead of us, we didn’t stay to ask.

As usual for these spur-of-the-moment trips, we missed most of the rest, including the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, in the center of downtown. Stonewall Jackson? The brochures say the city escaped destruction during the Civil War. After wandering around a bit we said goodbye to Staunton, telling ourselves maybe we’ll be back. The ride home, I-81 to I-66, was just more interstate until we passed Signal Knob, between Strasburg and Front Royal. That majestic peak prompted thoughts of my trail-running, rock-climbing days. Maybe they’re not over yet.

The high points of the week were not our own. The first was D-Day’s 75th anniversary, marked by the return of dozens of D-Day veterans to those hallowed French beaches. The speeches by national leaders, commentaries, recollections of the veterans, and the loving reminiscences of their family members filled these last few days with eloquence and grace. They elevated the tone of the reporting to awe at the selfless willingness of so many Americans, Brits, and Canadians, so young, to offer their lives to overcome evil at that hellish time and place. Leadership also mattered, from Marshall to Eisenhower to Ridgway, Bradley, and Patton, and thousands of field commanders and noncoms.

The second, also on June 6th, was the 10th wedding anniversary of our daughter Marie and son-in-law Mike, whom I’ve reported on here; they’ve found a nice home in South Carolina after stints in Lewisburg, Penn., a remote and in winter a very cold place, and Alexandria, a very expensive and congested place. I should mention, as if I haven’t already, they’ve been blessed with two smart, lively, loving little boys.

Heartened and maybe humbled by those thoughts, we focused again on what lies ahead for us, which is what lies ahead for everyone: the chore, for it is a chore, of persevering against the prospect of more excitement than you want in life—things we’d rather not experience. Those are the financial mistakes the financial experts warn us about and the health “problems” no one warns us about.

Like countless others, we brace ourselves as the medical bills flow in, understanding that the real challenge is stepping up, facing down the surprises, getting through the days when everything seems uncertain. It amounts to saying your prayers, cutting the grass, making dinner, getting some exercise, paying those bills, staying in touch with everyone you want to stay in touch with.

So through the week, while reading the reports from Normandy, I worked at other things: running, including a hard seven miles at Fountainhead Regional Park, went to Mass, raked the yard, visited with friends—the things you do to simply live, no matter how old you are. This is what an old professor at college, long gone to his reward, called the “stuff of spiritual survival.”

That “stuff”  calls us to do what’s good and necessary: get up, finish the run, do the yard work, pay the doctor’s bills, get the exams (another today), get to church, send sympathy cards, and—far from last—plan our next road trip to some out-of-the-way place in America we haven’t yet seen. And maybe back to Staunton. To me, that looks like survival.

Home Anniversary

June 3, 2019

From the go-go pace of our kids’ place last week we were dumped by our airport lift at home Sunday evening. It still was early, so we looked for a moment at the empty house. The grass and weeds were a little higher and scruffier. Otherwise it looked in every way just as it did when we left it a week ago. Just as you hope. But to me it looked like it did a year ago, or five years ago, or longer.

Inside, it was cool. Quiet, too, the way you want your house to be when you get home from a trip. Always reassuring not to find a party of teenagers, or the furniture turned over and in splinters or torched. I’ve had my nightmares, like any homeowner. Ten years ago we had a leak in the basement while on a vacation, revealed by a waterlogged carpet. That’s one you want to avoid. Now we turn off the water whenever we’re gone overnight.

So I went downstairs and turned it back on. We unpacked. In the twilight I walked outside and around the back. The yard was wet, it had rained that afternoon. Yard tools were where I had left them. The weeds were even higher in the backyard, since I haven’t attempted to mow our steep hill. Weed-whacking keeps the tall stuff at bay. At the top of the hill you can see the roof of the neighbor’s house on the cul-de-sac above our street, and his out-of-control weeds. The trees close in around our yard and in the dim light appear as a deep forest. A few squirrels and robins perch here and there.

It hit me then that we were a short week away from our anniversary at this place: we moved in June 1, 1987, what’s that—32 years? Our youngest, Kathleen, was eight months old (Sandy reminded me). She’ll be 32 in the fall.

I get weary of seniors who flog you with memories. We have our share dating from that first day in this house, but I tread lightly on dredging them up. What struck me last Sunday evening in the backyard was nature’s mark on the years, helped along a little by us. Our contribution: we now have a brick-stone patio I built about ten years ago, along with a firepit made of leftover bricks. Even earlier, I assembled a shed from a kit I got at Lowe’s. It’s now jammed with rusty tools and two lawn mowers, one more than 20 years old that still runs. Near the house we planted a jungle of hostas and ferns, which pop up every spring.

img_20190601_1511342321042975975983821497.jpgIn the way-back department: circa 1990, when the kids were little, we installed a swingset that made me dig four-feet deep holes and pour concrete. It had to be close to the house because of the hill. They played on it for a while then lost interest. Extracting that contraption was more work than putting it in. The hill itself was fun for them when it snowed. You could ride sleds from the top, then roll off before they hit the house.

Later, when the kids drifted away, we tried landscaping the place. Grass wouldn’t survive because of the deep shade. I planted snippets of English ivy on both sides of the yard to give it a green look and hold back erosion. Within a few years the ivy was out of control, crawling down the hill and into the next-door neighbors’ yards. They didn’t complain, maybe because they were renters, so I didn’t worry about it. Soon it was climbing the trees and fences. I started wondering what kinds of sharp-toothed or sharp-fanged critters were living underneath. So we faced a moment of truth on that.

I tried a few other ideas, like placing rows of railroad ties along the hill to give it some focus, then two summers ago planted vegetables: green beans, kale, lettuce, carrots, squash, one or two others, in the one spot in the middle that I thought got enough sunlight. A few stalks sprouted with twice-a-day watering. Then they died, nothing else came up. Soon I couldn’t remember where I buried the seeds, as the weeds closed in.

I know lots of people do similar stuff to spruce up their property, some more successful than others. Yet looking around the backyard Sunday night, I could not see that we had had any impact on Mother Nature over those 32 years.

Maybe it was the sense of the way things should be on a still Sunday evening. No breeze stirred. The air was thick with the Potomac humidity that will be with us for three months. The oaks and maples that surround and loom over our place show their age, tall, dense, impenetrable, closing in, as they have all these years, now dark and silent, but conveying to me in the dusk some mysterious, powerful message. I settled into a chair waiting for absolutely nothing to happen but the passing of time.

Memories rush forward, of kids running through a lawn sprinkler, trampling the grass to mud, then splashing in a two-foot deep inflatable pool on those unbearably sticky summer days of 1987.

The mind lurches from all that across the blur of years to last week, when we scrambled, panting and gasping, to keep up with two relentlessly tireless grandsons. Then I look farther forward to this moment, encircled by our dark, overhanging patch of forest. The deep-green canopy becomes a chapel, conveying in its stillness something elusive yet also crystal-clear: awareness of the closeness of a loving God, that sustains us as we weather the time given us—maybe years, maybe less.

We may yet free ourselves from being hostages to the past and bequeath this mystical place to others, maybe young parents, who will learn to know it as we do. Not yet. Why not, I can’t answer.